In bondage on the road to Mandalay

Vivien Morgan, reports on the Burmese government's use of slave labour to prepare for a tourist bonanza

Under the midday sun a small group of Burmese labour by the roadside, clearing gutters and rebuilding embankments. To tourists on their way to the Sagaing pagoda in minibuses with tinted windows, they do not merit a second glance. But these men ar e working at gunpoint. A soldier stands guard over them.

This is the reality of life in Burma for hundreds and thousands of people - forced into unpaid work, to polish and prettify the country for a tourist boom in 1996, designated the Year of Myanmar, as Burma styles itself. Starved of international funding since the economic embargo by the World Bank and others, in response to the 1988 military takeover by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the government seeks to lure foreign-currency spenders, in the form of tourists, But the infrastructure is run- down; the roads unsuitable for tourist coaches, the railways slow and unreliable - you can wait at Rangoon for two days before the train leaves for Mandalay - and the archaeological sites and beauty spots, not up to accommodating mass tourism.

So the generals have turned the country into one huge slave- labour camp. The rich can buy their way out or pay for someone else to do the work. For the rest, there is no escape.

One of the largest projects is the fort at Mandalay - the fabled city of Kings. The red fort and its pagodas, the gilded royal barge moored in the moat, Mandalay Hill, with its sacred temples and steep path of 1,200 steps leading to Nirvana - all evoke the past grandeur of what is now called the Golden Land.

Today, the fort and moat swarm with hundreds of prisoners and villagers, repairing walls and dredging mud. They are watched by armed soldiers, unpaid and fed only by a midday meal of rice.

In scenes reminiscent of a biblical Hollywood epic, they labour from dawn to dusk. The prisoners no longer wear leg-irons (though they still do in parts of the country off the tourist map). They are marched to a nearby barracks at night. Villagers squat in makeshift camps by the fort.

Every month a village must deliver a certain number of men and women to work for two weeks. As one man said: "When the order comes, we have to go. It we don't, the police come the next day and you're fined. If you can't pay the fine you can go to jail for about two months."

More than half a million people are being press-ganged into work on the Ye-Tavoy railway - dubbed the "Second Death Railway" because conditions resemble those on the line across the River Kwai built by Second World War prisoners.

This project's toll in human suffering is appalling. Hundreds of villages are torched to clear the area, those living there sent packing. Witness accounts from those, like one woman who escaped to the Thai border camps, provide the details. "There were thousands of us working on the railway. They even take pregnant women. I saw women raped and beaten. One gave birth to her baby, but both she and the baby died and we had to take away the bodies - I couldn't stand it anymore, so I fled."

At Pagan, 300km from Mandalay, the picture is the same. The heart of Pagan, the old village, was recently demolished. Deemed an eyesore to tourists, and too close to the main temples, the inhabitants were moved to wasteland 3 kilometres away.

These same villagers are forced to work at archaeological site restorations for no wages.

Pagan, renowned for its Buddhist pagodas, was designated by Unesco as an area of historic importance. While international agencies pour in money for restoration, workers' wages are being withheld - and aid diverted to government coffers.

About 300,000 refugees have reached the Thai border. Living in camps on the Moei river, their numbers grow daily.

When tourists arrive in increasing numbers in the so-called Golden Land of Myanmar, the authorities hope they won't see - beyond the pagodas and serene smiling Buddhas - the real face of Burma.

9 Vivien Morgan's report on Burma will appear on BBC television news today.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit